Chinese rocket debris to cause limited damage, expert predicts

Remnants of China’s largest rocket launched last week are expected to plunge back through the atmosphere — dropping the equivalent of three pickup trucks or a small plane late Saturday or early Sunday, an expert said.

Long March 5B, the Chinese rocket, is equivalent in size to an unloaded semi-truck and weighs roughly 22 tons — as much as nine tons of material — and is expected to survive, Ted Muelhaupt, principal director of The Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (Cords) at the Aerospace Corporation, said.

While Muelhaupt agrees with the Chinese foreign ministry’s prediction that the debris will likely fall into the ocean, he is concerned that China has had two uncontrolled re-entries in the space of a year.

"There was enough reaction to the last one last May — most people thought they (China) would have learned their lesson and not done it again, but apparently they have," Muelhaupt said.

Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon within China. In late April, authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei Province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.

No such system exists beyond China, according to Muelhaupt, and he hopes the number of uncontrolled reentries remains low in the future.

The Long March 5B is one of the largest pieces of space debris to return to Earth. The core stage of the first Long March 5B that returned to Earth last year weighed nearly 20 tons, surpassed only by debris from the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, and NASA’s Skylab in 1979.

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